Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Democracy in the Arab world

Interesting interview I came across via Angry Arab. An Boston Globe interview with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a pro-Western Egyptian democracy activist. His point about Middle East dictatorships thriving on the continuation of the conflict over Zionism, and disincentived to reach any resolution of it is very valid. Somehow Ibrahim exempts Sadat from this criticism despite Sadat's being possibly the single most perfect example of a dictator using the conflict to get Western support for the indefinite continuation of his dictatorial status.

But if peace is reached on Thursday, whether by a one-state solution or somehow, impossibly, Arab populations decide Israel as a Jewish state is legitimate where it is and accept a two state solution, then by Friday the dictators of Saudi Arabia, (I don't want to type out the whole list, Qatar, Syria, all of them) will come under greater pressure than they ever have to relinquish power.

The world superpower, and all of its most powerful allies actually are missionary ideological democrats. While the US would not invade Jordan to empower democratic institutions there, it would invest resources to parties in that country to strengthen their challenge to the dictatorship. Modern dictatorships are fairly fragile and in small countries they collapse under modest pressure. The string of Middle East dictatorships are fully aware of the necessity of a conflict over Zionism that they can use to avoid this pressure by being less anti-Israel than the most plausible winners of elections.

Q: Say you get your four-year transition. Civil society opens up, there's freedom of speech. But suppose when it comes time for the election, it appears the Islamists are going to win.

A: No, they're not. Look at the elections that have been held. Islamists did not get the majority in most of them; and if they get a majority once, they don't get it a second time. Look at Jordan, where there were elections in 1989. The Islamists got a plurality - but in the next election, they lost even that.

Q: You don't worry that if Islamists come to power through elections, their commitment to democracy may be limited to one man, one vote, one time?

A: That is a figment of Western fear. It has never happened. I challenge anyone who makes that proposition: Tell me where it has happened. Find me one example.

From time to time I run across the idea that "Islamists" oppose Israel, and the US/Israel are afraid of "Islamists" coming to power in majority Arab or majority Muslim countries. Nasser was not an Islamist. Saddam Hussein was not an Islamist. The "Islamist/Secular" distinction is more misleading than the "Sunni/Shiite" distinction.

As soon as Egypt holds elections, Egypt will get a government, secular or Islamist, that will refuse to support Israel's blockade of Gaza. That is the important issue to the US and Israel - and on this issue Mubarak and the State Department are correct even if the State Department is contradicting supposed US values.

Then if the Islamists win the first election and lose the second, they'll lose the election to another party that will refuse to cooperate with Israel's punishment of Gaza for voting for Hamas.

I've always taken "one person, one vote, one time" as projection. Pro-Western Middle East politicians routinely ''postpone" elections because of "emergencies". Abbas being just the most recent. The fact of the matter is that for at least a generation, anti-Western groups have been far more respectful of democracy as an ideal than the United States has in that region.

Obama's new formulation that the US will "lead by example" while funding and supporting dictatorships in the Middle East translates to "democracy is for us, not for you." Which is the only policy consistent with prioritizing the security of Israel in the Middle East.

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